Eric Stover Has Spent a Career Unearthing Atrocities

A human rights researcher investigates genocide.
By Gary Lee

ERIC STOVER HAD NO PROFESSIONAL PATH when he set out backpacking from Alaska through Central and South America in early spring 1975. At 23, he was inspired by wanderlust. “I wanted to be the next Kerouac, but it didn’t work out that way.” By the end of that 16-months-long trip, Stover was clear about his life’s mission. The journey of realization started in Chile, where Stover has family and where he witnessed dictator Augusto Pinochet’s bloody crackdown against critics. Argentina was more of the same. In Juyjuy, on the Bolivian border, militia were roaming the streets, arresting demonstrators and anyone else unlucky enough to catch attention. Stover was swept up in the melee, thrown in jail overnight, and eventually taken to a stadium with hundreds of young Argentines. When the captors discovered that Stover was American, they put him on a train to Bolivia. The Argentines were not so fortunate. Some were interrogated and tortured, others were “disappeared,” never to be seen again.

Stover’s commitment to shedding light on acts of barbarity—and bringing the perpetrators to justice—is the central theme of his life.

“I was scared,” Stover recalled. “But when I got over the fright, my eyes were opened. I realized that I could use my privilege to do something positive and useful.”

He pledged to devote his life to investigating and prosecuting human rights abuses.

For more than four decades, Stover, the faculty director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley, has stayed the course of his pledge. He has explored massacres and other atrocities around the world, from the decades-long Violencia in Central America to the raping and pillaging perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. He is particularly adept at examining instances of horrific violence, piecing together what happened, and identifying those responsible.

Stover’s commitment to shedding light on acts of barbarity—and bringing the perpetrators to justice—is the central theme of his life. “The denials or objections to how these crimes happened are inevitable,” he said. “That’s why it’s crucial to establish an accurate record and get the story out.”

In the early 1980s, the new civilian government of Argentina’s Commission on the Disappeared asked for Stover’s counsel in finding those who had vanished under the country’s military regime. In need of advice about forensics, he contacted renowned forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who became Stover’s mentor and collaborator for over three decades. Together, they worked on more than a dozen cases, starting with the first forensic investigations of the disappeared in Central and South America. In 1985, they analyzed the remains of the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in São Paulo, Brazil.

In the long list of investigations Stover has undertaken, one stands out as the toughest: uncovering the bodies of the thousands of men and boys who were murdered by the Bosnian Serb Army in Srebrenica in 1995. As an investigator on the international forensic team assigned to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Stover began traveling to the remote site of the incident in Bosnia, six months after it occurred, to interview survivors and search for clues. Later, using satellite imagery and metal detectors, they discovered four graves containing more than 8,000 corpses.

Stover thought he knew all of the complex twists and turns involved in comprehending large-scale catastrophes. Then came Tulsa.

As Stover and other investigators examined the bodies, they found paraphernalia the victims had grabbed before fleeing: the keys to their houses; photographs of their families; sometimes a cross, a rosary, Koran, or other religious object. Close examination of the bullet-ridden bodies also showed that the victims’ hands were tied behind their backs with cloth apparently taken from a nearby farmhouse. This evidence was later used to bring Serb general Ratko Mladić and 14 other perpetrators to trial in The Hague. The tribunal sentenced Mladić to life imprisonment.

Every massacre investigation is different. In most cases, Stover arrives on the scene with a team of forensic experts to begin the painstaking search for bodies. Sometimes they are lying at his feet. In 1994, following the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of members of the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda, he found corpses that had been left to rot for months on the floors of schools and churches. Other times, finding remains can take decades. Most of the 30,000 desaparecidos from Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970s and ’80s remain unaccounted for, their bodies dumped in the ocean or otherwise made to vanish.

AFTER DOZENS OF SUCH INVESTIGATIONS, Stover thought he knew all of the complex twists and turns involved in comprehending large-scale catastrophes.

Then came Tulsa.

In 2018, Jonathan Silvers, an award-winning filmmaker who had collaborated with Stover in producing films about atrocities in different corners of the globe, suggested that they work together on a documentary about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.

Stover was keenly familiar with the events surrounding the Tulsa tragedy. Snow, his mentor, had led the official commission that had probed the massacre nearly 20 years earlier, in 2001, and invited Stover to join. An illness had prevented it, but Stover still did his homework.

After a newspaper account that a young Black man had assaulted a white woman in the elevator of an office building, a white mob organized an attack on the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood on May 31, 1921. After a day and a half of pillaging, the white attackers had left 35 blocks of the community in ruins, murdered more than 100 Black Tulsans, and left thousands without homes. The violence had decimated the so-called Black Wall Street district, nationally known as one of the most successful conglomerations of Black businesses in the United States.

Stover, examining the event through the same lens he used to research massacre cases abroad, found stark similarities. As in Srebrenica and Guatemala, in Tulsa there were reports of mass graves where victims had been buried. Just as in Argentina and elsewhere, many from the affected Black community had been separated and placed in internment camps (which officials had claimed were for the protection of Black Tulsans). As a result, many victims were isolated from their families. A hundred years later, some families have still not recovered the bodies of those they lost.

Another strikingly familiar aspect of the Tulsa massacre was the collaboration between the white mob and Tulsa city officials. “It turned out that police had armed, and in some cases even deputized, the perpetrators,” Stover said. “So this was not just a case of mob violence. It was close to being state-sanctioned.”

Tulsa posed a new set of challenges. Stover pointed out that most of the massacre investigations he has conducted took place within a few years of the incident. In Tulsa, a century has passed, making excavations, examination of corpses, and other processes researchers are pursuing far more complicated.

What really made Tulsa different for Stover was proximity: This was a massacre that had occurred on American soil.

Another unusual aspect of the Tulsa story was the silence. For decades, neither white nor Black Tulsans had talked about it. Stover calls it “the hushed history.” In Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, and elsewhere, Stover found that victims and survivors would eventually open up and tell their stories even if the perpetrators remained silent.

In Tulsa, neither side dared speak about what occurred. “The privileged whites felt as if they couldn’t say anything to damage their image of being the oil capital of the world,” Stover said. “And the Blacks just did not want to pass the pain of what happened to their children.”

What really made Tulsa different for Stover was proximity: This was a massacre that had occurred on American soil. The other atrocities he had researched were on the other side of the globe. Here was a case where Americans had wreaked destruction on other Americans, and not in the distant past, but in the 20th century.

As the centennial anniversary of the massacre approached, it only magnified awareness of how little progress Tulsa, and the country, had made in reckoning with a long history of racial injustice.

The Tulsa story was emerging against the backdrop of a nation rocked, once more, by racial tensions.

In November of 2018, when the team arrived in Tulsa to start filming the documentary, the air was thick with questions. Among them: What happened to the victims never accounted for? How was the enduring trauma being addressed? Why had the earlier probes stopped short of exhuming bodies?

Black and white Tulsans were beginning to share their memories of what happened—positive steps, Stover feels, and an indication that the city is trying to heal its wounds.

But from a filmmaking perspective, the biggest dilemma was how to get the survivors of the massacre and their descendants—and other Tulsans—to talk.

For help, Silvers and Stover enlisted Deneen Brown, a Black woman and veteran Washington Post reporter who had Oklahoma roots and had written about the massacre. She became a co-producer of the documentary and a guide for viewers through the predominantly Black community of North Tulsa.

Brown and team found a city slowly starting to address the darkest chapter in its history. G.T. Bynum, the white mayor of Tulsa, had reopened the investigation of the massacre, and a forensic team had been appointed to investigate unmarked graves at a local cemetery to determine whether they contained the bodies of massacre victims. Dr. Robert Turner, the outspoken minister of Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church, a prominent Black congregation in Tulsa, had begun a public campaign for reparations for surviving massacre victims and their descendants.

Stover was heartened by what he found. The search for mass graves, while still unresolved, indicated that Tulsa officials were making an attempt to find lost victims of the massacre. Black and white Tulsans were beginning to share their memories of what happened—positive steps, Stover feels, and an indication that the city is trying to heal its wounds.

AFTER TWO AND A HALF DECADES of teaching at the Berkeley School of Law, Stover, who is in his late 60s, looks every bit the academic, although not of the rumpled variety: trimmed mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, jacket always neat, shirt always pressed. He speaks with clarity and dispassion, evincing years spent at podiums, delivering lectures, seminars, and workshops. (His classes at Berkeley are almost always oversubscribed.)

“I am not an activist,” says Stover. “I am a strong believer in standing back and following multiple working hypotheses when investigating

Close colleagues say his quiet persona and low-key disposition may also be an outgrowth of his work, his way of coping with the weight of years spent digging up graves and confronting the unspeakable.

Besides teaching, Stover has directed the Human Rights Center for a quarter of a century. The university founded it in 1994, two years before Stover’s arrival. The Center receives funding from foundations and private donors. Under Stover’s leadership, its staff has grown considerably and built an impressive record of success in training investigators and researchers of war crimes and other severe violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. Its motto: Pursuing justice through science and law.

Over his tenure, Stover has endowed the Center with a solid commitment to rigorous empirical research. In his experience, reliable data is what wins legal cases. He has pushed for the use of forensic technologies, such as ground-penetrating radar and DNA analysis, which, in some cases, have helped identify victims and link perpetrators with the crimes. 

“I am not an activist,” says Stover. “I am a strong believer in standing back and following multiple working hypotheses when investigating cases.”

It’s an approach that has served him well.

International human rights activists have lauded his work on several medico-legal investigations, including as an expert on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In the early 1990s, he conducted the first study on the toll of landmines in Cambodia and other postwar countries—research that helped launch the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. His work surveying mass graves throughout Rwanda for the International Criminal Tribunal provided vital evidence in the prosecution of several of the high-level officials.

In the end, the lengths Stover goes to in investigating cases illustrates how deeply he feels that the abusers must be brought to justice.

Stephen Cody, an assistant professor of law at Suffolk University and a past student of Stover’s, who worked with him on a study of former Guantanamo Bay detainees, said of Stover that “his influence and impact on how we go about human rights work is enormous.… He was one of the early pioneers of using witness experiences in the prosecution of the perpetrators. He was one of the first to place witness testimonies on the same level as experts. That was groundbreaking.”

Part of Stover’s professional mission is to keep the standards high for new generations of human rights investigators. Together with Snow, who died in 2014, he helped build a team of University of Buenos Aires students to investigate human rights abuses in Argentina.

The Argentine group, in turn, started similar teams in Chile and elsewhere in South America. Stover and Snow also assisted in launching a similar group of student investigators in Guatemala.

UNDER STOVER’S TENURE, the Human Rights Center has established an internship program that has sent more than 360 students to engage in human rights projects with NGOs and other organizations in communities across the globe.

“What sets him apart as a teacher is the ease with which he refers to personal experiences doing human rights work in the field,” said Alexa Koenig, who took one of his classes as a graduate student and now serves as executive director of the Human Rights Center. “Hearing about his field experiences makes you realize that it is possible to have a real impact. And that’s powerful.”

In the end, the lengths Stover goes to in investigating cases illustrates how deeply he feels that the abusers must be brought to justice.

A few years after the 1991 Vukovar massacre, where several hundred Croatian prisoners of war and civilians were murdered by Serb paramilitaries and dumped in a mass grave in nearby Ovčara, Stover traveled to the scene with a team led by Snow. There, he discovered a body a few hundred feet from the gravesite. As he examined the corpse closely, he found that what remained of the hand bones were clutching a Saint Christopher medal. Stover gathered that the victim had probably escaped the grave and was shot down while attempting to flee.

The team turned their evidence over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which convicted eight  people for their involvement in the incident.

When reports surfaced of possible mass graves near the town of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan, the group Human Rights Watch asked him to look into it. Getting there was an arduous journey. He first flew into Damascus, then was smuggled undercover across the border by boat, and eventually shuttled to a site where there had been reports of bodies. After some challenging rock climbing, he and others in the team found a cave-like area that contained human remains. Careful digging revealed that it was a mass grave filled with hundreds of bodies of women and children, likely slaughtered by the Iraqi military years earlier. Stover’s subsequent report for Human Rights Watch brought international attention to the mass graves in the region. It also recommended the steps that the Iraqi government should take, such as creating a missing persons bureau and conducting DNA research to identify the victims.

Stover joined forces with the well-known French human rights photographer Gilles Peress. Together, they produced books, including The Graves: Srebenica and Vukovar—two haunting examples of ethnic cleansing.

In an interview, Stover explained that these kinds of probes are not only significant in building cases but also in terms of bringing closure to survivors. He says he is “constantly reminded that we are called up to tell the final chapter of someone’s life.”

Stover is a great believer in collaboration. At Berkeley, he pairs with other faculty members to co-teach courses and has teamed up with many human rights advocates, photographers, documentarians, and prosecutors in his investigations.

His partnership with Silvers, the award-winning filmmaker, has resulted in several documentaries, including Dead Reckoning, a three-part series on the flaws of the model of justice conceived by the Allies after World War II. Silvers says of Stover, “The honesty, thoroughness, and humility he brings to telling human rights stories are probably without parallel. It’s an honor to work with him. Everybody who collaborates with him feels that way.”

Stover has also joined forces with the well-known French human rights photographer Gilles Peress. Together, they have produced several books, including The Graves: Srebenica and Vukovar—two haunting examples of ethnic cleansing.

Stover is “one of the most efficient persons anywhere in helping bring abuses of human rights to justice,” Peress says. He “knows how to prepare and present rock-solid cases. His impact on human rights around the world is impossible to overstate.”

IN 2004, STOVER TRAVELED TO NORTHERN UGANDA to investigate the destruction that had been wrought by the Lord’s Resistance Army. There, he met Alice Achan, a Ugandan social worker who was counseling hundreds of internally displaced girls, many of whom had been raped and left pregnant by LRA fighters.

“At first, I saw Eric as one of the many who came, asked questions, and then disappeared,” Achan recalled. “But he said he’d come back.”

A few months later, Stover returned. During their meeting, Achan said she wanted to establish a school for young women who, with their children, had escaped the LRA.

One of the biggest questions that hangs in the air following a mass tragedy is, what can be done to help survivors cope with their loss and the enduring trauma.

In the next few months, he helped secure funding from the MacArthur Foundation to found the Pader Girls Academy, which opened in 2007.

“Since then, I have looked at Eric as second to God,” Achan said. “He is the definition of a humanitarian.”

In Stover’s view, one of the biggest questions that hangs in the air following a mass tragedy is, what can be done to help survivors cope with their loss and the enduring trauma?

His probe of the genocide in Rwanda dramatized the point. He and a female Rwandan official had driven in a pickup truck to some towns where the violence had occurred. One evening, the official asked to stop at her family home. It was located in a remote village, which she had not visited since the massacre occurred.

She went in alone and found the corpse of her son on the floor. When she emerged, she asked to sit in the back of the truck and wailed all the way back to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, three hours away.

“This need for family members to come to some terms is universal no matter where you are,” Stover said, whether it’s 9/11 or the sinking of a South Korean ferry. “In each case, they need to be able to have the remains and give them a proper burial.”

Investigators can address this need by engaging families in their processes, Stover feels. Relatives or descendants can be a vital part of gathering evidence, observing the handling of remains, and, finally, of serving as witnesses in the prosecution of those responsible.

TOGETHER, THE DOCUMENTARY TEAM of Silvers, Stover, and Brown produced Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, a 90-minute film that aired on PBS on the centennial anniversary of the massacre. It featured interviews with a range of Tulsans, including descendants of victims, detailing their perspectives on what occurred and what needs to happen for the city to move forward. The son of a victim retells his mother’s account of white men approaching their house with torches, lighting the curtains on fire, and reducing everything the family had to embers. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum discusses how getting to the bottom of the massacre is the only way for the city to heal.

The film also draws attention to the work of the team excavating the mass graves at the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery.

Stover is encouraged by the fact that the investigators of the Tulsa massacre are taking great pains to engage ancestors of the victims in the process. Last June, when remains were pulled from the mass graves at the cemetery, descendants took part in a ceremony to help carry them out.

“This is an important step in trying to address the lingering trauma,” Stover said. “There must be other such efforts to reach into the community. Unless there is the involvement of descendants, the trauma will continue to be passed on to the next generation. This is what others who experienced tragedies have done. And it is what Tulsa should do.” 

Gary Lee was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the neighborhood where the 1921 massacre occurred. He has been a staff writer for Time and the Washington Post and is currently a senior editor at the Oklahoma Eagle, Tulsa’s Black newspaper.

From the Fall 2021 issue of California.
Image source: Jonathan Silvers / Saybrook Productions
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